‘Welcoming Economies’ and a new agenda for shared urban prosperity

This webinar was co-hosted by Cities of Migration and Welcoming America as Part 1 of a Welcoming Economies webinar series .
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In this webinar, Steve Tobocman, Executive Director of Global Detroit, in conversation with Sarah Wayland, Project Lead of Global Hamilton, spoke about the ways in which we can revitalize regional economies through immigrant attraction and retention, employment, entrepreneurship, workforce development, and internationalization of cities, workplaces and institutions.  Having spearheaded Global Detroit and the Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network since 2009 and 2012, respectively, Tobocman brings a wealth of experience in revitalizing regional economies in the American Rust Belt (a ten-state region including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan). He focussed on two main issues in welcoming economies: What are cities doing to foster innovation, investment, and wealth creation to benefit from immigrants and the community at large? And, how can immigration be a cornerstone of regional economic development efforts?

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Welcoming economies go hand-in-hand with inclusive cities

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the ways in which cities support immigrant and refugee populations to adapt and integrate into their new communities. Rather than operating from a place of assistance (helping them to access integration and social services), cities are turning their focus to collaboration, which represents a recognition of these populations as assets that contribute to regional competitiveness and urban revitalization. A simple of example of this shift is the emergence of partnerships between integration programs and regional Chambers of Commerce, which have traditionally not worked together.
It seems obvious, but the idea of building shared prosperity with both newer and more established populations is innovative. In the American Rust Belt region, cities are starting to build more inclusive economies that recognize immigrant communities’ strengths and support them where obstacles arise: most of the programs with which We Global Detroit is working are less than six years old, so there is clearly momentum building.
Exemplifying this shift in thinking, some of WE Global Detroit’s core values are:

  • Perceiving immigrant communities as assets in the context of regional economic opportunity
  • Understanding that by welcoming immigrants, both the economic and social fabrics of a region are strengthened
  • Placing regional economic development initiatives in a broader context of attracting and retaining immigrants as well as enhancing their role in the community’s economic and social development

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WE Global Detroit’s ten-state region (stars represent programs with which WE Global are partnering)

Although the following statistics may seem too simplistic in their definitions of what it means to contribute to an economy, they do point to a strong argument for inclusivity as a contributor to economic growth:

  • Over 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants
  • 25% of American high-tech firms were started by immigrants
  • International students are 3x more likely to major in Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) fields – and every foreign STEM worker with an advanced US degree creates 2.62 American jobs
  • 28% of small businesses started in 2011 were founded by immigrants – in a context in which the rate of increase of business start-ups has been declining – this represents more than twice their average in population representation (13%)
  • 28% of ‘Main St.’ business owners are immigrants – and immigrant owners accounted for nearly all net ‘Main St’ business growth from 2000-2013

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Immigrant populations are contributing to economic revitalization by starting small businesses (Image from Steve Tobocman’s presentation)

Of note is that the majority of these small, often family-run businesses, fit into the categories of high-exporting and hi-tech industries – both of which are crucial to sustaining regional economies. Immigrant populations are contributing often disproportionately more to regional economies that established residents – which is particularly important in areas that have seen decline due to restructuring from manufacturing to knowledge- and service-based economies. The question is, how can mainstream actors like Chambers of Commerce, elected officials, and economic development practitioners facilitate economic development with immigrant populations to foster benefits for their communities at large?
Tobocman outlined several potential initiatives, ranging from the obvious – international student retention, integration services, and workforce development – to the more intangible, like building welcoming communities and facilitating connections. One of the areas he emphasized was entrepreneurship that focusses more on ‘Main St’ and service-industry firms (as opposed to hi-tech firms), which are often characterized by self-employment.
One such program is ProperUs Detroit, which empowers entrepreneurs and community partners to transform low-income neighborhood economies from within by concentrating micro-enterprise development in low-income immigrant and minority neighborhoods.
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The Focus: HOPE Center for Advanced Technologies in Detroit hosted an entrepreneurship training program offered through ProsperUS Detroit in 2013.

Another program highlighted is the Neighbourhood Development Centre in Minneapolis-St-Paul, which has created more than 500 new business, 60% of which are in formerly vacant spaces. An important aspect of this program is fair wages and access to training: the Centre pays over $17/hour to employees and offers job training in six languages.
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The Neighbourhood Development Centre, which recently celebrated 20 years of community revitalization

In both of these programs, language and cultural accessibility are crucial to reaching immigrant and refugee populations, who may have more difficulty accessing entrepreneurship programs offered through institutions. These programs go beyond providing training in starting a business: they also include a micro-lending portion and provide ongoing support to graduates through business planning courses. Another promising initiative is Welcome Dayton, an ambitious plan to both attract and retain immigrant populations to the greater Dayton, OH region by encouraging business and economic development; providing access to education, government, health and social services; ensuring equity in the justice system; and promoting an appreciation of arts and culture.
These programs are doing a lot to support immigrants accessing economic development opportunities– but it is important to consider, in a broader sense, what makes a welcoming community? How can cities and regions help immigrant populations integrate into their communities both socially and economically, beyond facilitating access to employment?
One of the ways to address integration in a more holistic sense is developing inclusive processes for immigrants to get to know their communities and contribute to shaping them. The Welcome Toledo-Lucas County program plays two important roles in this respect: (1) a coordinative role of engaging service providers in process mapping and training to identify assets and gaps in service delivery and (2) a community facilitator role of hosting neighbourhood-based conversations and events. In a similar vein, the St. Louis Mosaic program acknowledges the many facets of integration by offering a suite of programs geared to culturally diverse communities – ranging from employment services that help build both personal and professional networks to community supports, including language resources and gathering places.
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The St. Louis Mosaic Project operates under the slogan “Regional prosperity through immigration & innovation.” (Image from Cities of Migration)

With a wealth of programs offering supports and services for immigrant communities, it is important to note that there is no “playbook” to work from – rather, communities in partnership with government and business groups are coming up with solutions as needs arise. This adaptive approach recognizes firstly that immigrant communities vary enormously in their needs, and secondly that both incoming and receiving communities benefit by being welcoming and inclusive.
Some of the probing questions Sarah Wayland asked were:

  • How do you forge relationships with both public- and private-sector employers to develop initiatives to attract immigrants?
  • Given discourses on cities in competition (to secure resources, attract talent, etc.) what is it about the Welcoming Economies approach that appeals to governments and thus allows for the developing working together towards a regional network?
  • Given the focus on economic development as a key to integration, is there a risk of losing sights of the more social/cultural aspects? How do we balance using economic arguments to guide our decisions with the reality that this work is about families building new lives, often under challenging conditions?
  • What is the Welcoming Economies Network’s approach to effecting policy change– given that cities are on the front-line of programs to welcome immigrant communities, yet have little influence on immigration policies?

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To find out Steve’s answers, you can listen to the full webinar here, courtesy of Cities of Migration. You can also join the WE Global Network as an individual or organization.